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How Restaurants Can Support Customers With Disabilities

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Crab legs are one of my favorite things to order when eating out at seafood restaurants. Due to my disorder, acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), I only have the use of my right hand, and it’s quite weak. As one might imagine, cracking crab legs is nearly impossible for me to do on my own. Being a crab leg lover, I’ve dealt with the scenario I’m about to describe a few times…

I was with my extended family eating at The Black Marlin on Hilton Head Island. I love this restaurant, so I’m not trying to give them or our server bad press at all.  Our server handled the situation well, but my point in sharing this story with everyone is that I wish requesting accommodations in public as a person with a disability didn’t have to be such a big production. Able-bodied people often don’t understand that people with disabilities face endless obstacles when out in public, and if society implemented even the smallest of changes and accommodations, it would be much easier for us to live independently.

Since I was eating with my family, I could have asked one of my family members to crack my crab legs for me, but the process takes a while and causes both me and the person helping me to start eating after everyone else. Plus, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to dislike having people at my table help me with tasks that able-bodied 17-year-old girls are able to do themselves. So as a solution to this, I’ve started asking my server if my salads could be brought out chopped and if my crab legs could be brought out cracked.

I had a great experience with a waitress at Red Lobster who happily brought out both mine and my disabled friend’s crab legs cracked, and I’ve also had a bad experience at Red Lobster with a waitress who outright refused to crack my crab legs even though I told her I have a disability. I did report that second instance, and it was dealt with appropriately.

This time, at The Black Marlin, I didn’t have a bad experience, per se — I just wish requesting accommodations at restaurants — and everywhere else — didn’t make me feel awkward and like I’m an annoying, demanding customer. Upon ordering my crab legs, I asked our server if he could bring them out cracked. I held my breath as I awaited his response, because there’s no telling how a server might react. Thankfully, he said yes, for which I was grateful.

However, when the food was brought out, my crab legs were placed in front of me not cracked. I thought about telling him, but I wasn’t brave enough, so my aunt offered to help me crack them. Before she could, though, the server noticed and kindly offered to take them back to be cracked.  I let him, bummed I had to wait to eat, but I was pleased he was going to fix the issue. A few minutes later, he returned with my crab legs, only they still were not cracked.

“The chef sliced them down the middle,” he told me.  “Is that OK or do you want them fully cracked?”

“Can you please crack them? I just can’t do it myself,” I explained.

He nodded and took them back.  A few minutes later, he returned again, and thankfully, my crab legs were fully cracked this time. I was pleased he had listened to me and accommodated me, but I wished it hadn’t taken so long for my request to be fulfilled.  By the time I got my plate and began eating, many of my family members had already finished eating. The situation really wasn’t that big of a deal, as our server was kind about it and I did eventually get my crab legs cracked, but I just wish restaurants could become more familiar with these types of requests.

When I go out to eat, I want to feel and be as independent as possible, and having the server bring my crab legs out cracked makes a huge difference. I don’t ever want to be out on a date and have to ask my boyfriend to help me with my food, so restaurants providing this minimal assistance truly helps disabled people like me a lot. It seems like servers won’t completely understand the request unless I tell them I have a disability (which I shouldn’t have to share about myself to receive accommodations). I hope through sharing my experience, servers will become more aware of situations like this in the future.

Being fully independent while living with a physical disability can be a challenge for many, so little accommodations like this, though they may seem small and like they’re not a big deal, really do make a difference.

Originally published: June 25, 2019
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